In bed with a badger that bites in the night: Eunice Overend shares her life with badgers while she wages war on the men from the ministry. Peter Dunn visited her caravan home

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Tizz of Tisbury lodges with Eunice Overend in a big shabby caravan in a field above the village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire. Three weeks ago he bit her, leaving a nasty wound.

There had been some sort of alarm during the night and Tizz, warming himself against Miss Overend's back in bed, had got a bit confused and sank his teeth into her forearm. Miss Overend picked up a stout stick she keeps handy for disciplining her truculent lodgers and thwacked him out into the cold. She bears him no ill will. As a badger, he's unlikely to know any better. Like James Thurber's Muggs, the Dog That Bit People, Tizz was back indoors a few nights later in time to bite our photographer.

Miss Overend, a retired biology teacher born in Yorkshire 74 years ago, hits badgers with her big stick only to break up their territorial fights outside her door. They may have names like Fred or Bertie of Burton on Trent but she does not anthropomorphise them. They get the same practical, no-nonsense approach she applied to unruly children at school in Frome, Somerset, years ago. 'You had to cultivate an appearance of sharp temper,' she says. 'I liked teaching the ones that wanted to be taught; but if anyone was really awful they got a good thump.'

Miss Overend's caravan, which has mice living in its roof, stands amid a man-made sett for her refugee badgers. With its pipes, dug-outs, trenches and wire fencing it looks like a mock-up of the Somme battlefield. The analogy is appropriate. For Miss Overend is at war with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) over its policy of trapping and shooting badgers as part of the Government's campaign to wipe out tuberculosis in cattle.

Miss Overend says the Government is scapegoating badgers, which she believes are far more likely to be catching TB from sick cattle rather than infecting herds. Her case is that cows fall ill despite a vigorous test and slaughter policy because they pass the TB to each other at crowded markets, or through coughing, or suckling of calves with 'foster' cows.

Constant harassment by trappers, she insists, is making badgers so upset that they catch the disease through stress. The Badger Lady says it was much the same with humans during the Thirties when TB went hand in hand with bad housing and unemployment.

The solution to the problem, she says, is to stop the slaughter and give badgers regular doses of Badgevac, a TB vaccine which is smeared on peanuts. This has shown promising results during tests in Ireland.

The Badger Lady's pleas to leave Brock in peace, often supported by papers that combine erudition with a stinging schoolmarm sarcasm, have made her a formidable opponent in Whitehall.

Maff wearily denies her allegations. 'There have been two independent reports, Lord Zuckerman's in 1979 and Professor George Dunnet's in 1986,' a spokeswoman said. 'Both concluded that there was overwhelming circumstantial evidence that badgers pass TB on to cattle.

'We only trap badgers on farms where there's been a confirmed TB breakout and we're only usually getting rid of 900 badgers a year against tens of thousands that are killed on the roads. And we don't think Badgevac is going to work, it's as simple as that.'

The impasse has led to guerrilla warfare in rural England. Its flash point is in Cornwall, where the badger-killing by a ministry wildlife unit based in Truro is being opposed and frequently sabotaged by animal rights activists. The conflict is so fierce that field workers have been issued with Home Office guidelines on searching their vehicles for bombs and have been told how to deal with threatening phone calls to their ex-directory home numbers.

'They call us all animal rights activists these days,' Miss Overend says, 'which means anyone who disapproves of what they're doing. But in fact there's a large number of perfectly good people who will report traps or turn out in the middle of the night to lift them. I've done it myself, here and over the hill, at crack of dawn. But, of course, it's become worse and worse and more and more we in the badger groups are saying: 'It's up to your own conscience what you do.' There's no law against letting badgers out. It sounds as though I'm being threatening, but I'm not. It's just the awful state the situation's got into.'

Maurice Tibbles, the film-maker, who has known the Badger Lady for 25 years and is making a documentary about her for Survival, the Anglia TV series, says it would be a mistake to write her off as a dotty English lady. 'She's eccentric but her arguments are logical and based on years of experience,' he says. 'She's an incredible woman, probably one of the last of the Victorian- style naturalists.

'She was Peter Scott's first curator at Slimbridge after the war. She discovered harvest mice in Yorkshire when she was six years old. She rings bells, which got her into bats. And she advises the Ministry of Defence about conserving badger setts when they want to build new tank tracks on Salisbury Plain. The army calls her the Badger Mother.'

Eunice Overend grew up in Last of the Summer Wine country around Holmfirth in Yorkshire. Her father was a stiff-necked mill manager who 'never told me anything' and retired to Somerset when he was made redundant. She was much closer to her cousins, who were circus acrobats and kept a tiger, Fenella, which they took for walks around town on a chain leash and let it strop its claws on the back of the kitchen door.

Teaching biology in the West Country seems to have been secondary to her passion for wildlife. She had a fox, Toffee, which once ran up her chimney in Frome and got stranded on the roof ridge. Some of her first badgers came from a gamekeeper at a nearby estate, having been advertised in Exchange & Mart at pounds 5 a head.

Her pioneering work, studying the complex social structure of badger communities, is widely acknowledged by academic biologists. Even so, the relationship with the inhabitants of the sett around her caravan is intensely loving, despite an appearance of Yorkshire gruffness. At one point in our conversation she said: 'You have all the pleasure of their company for a year and then they go, like children growing up.'

Suspicious of authority, she never wanted to work for her badgers inside the Whitehall machine. 'The Ministry's got this advisory panel with people from various conservation bodies,' she says. 'I wouldn't be seen dead on it because I always thought I could do more good from outside. The panel's advising them not to kill badgers, but they're not taking any notice. Killing badgers doesn't work.'

(Photographs omitted)

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